On the 14th of May, 1976 at the legendary East-West Festival in the city of Nürnberg, the incomparable Archie Shepp performed a profound – and magnificently loud – nineteen-minute piece entitled “A Message from Trane”. The spiritual frequency of that piece was palpable and it is what enabled me to keep the faith in Trane with Mr Shepp, so to speak, even after his music propelled him into an etherised musical realm, when most of his followers had deserted him. The same could be said of the fate of his wife, Alice Coltrane. It was almost a decade since the great John Coltrane [less in the case of Mrs Coltrane] had passed into the realm of the ancestors. Meanwhile, here on earth, we were all clinging onto the memory of his music as if it too had passed on with him. It was a very strange phenomenon and it fascinated me. I who was also fascinated by Biblical metaphor and almost at once upon hearing the music that Mr Shepp was playing I suddenly found myself recalling the fearful dénouement of the story of “Dives and Lazarus” at told by the Evangelist, Luke [16:19–31].
“He [Dives, who had died and was in burning in Hades] answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’… and I was thinking throughout the fury of Mr Shepp’s music: “If they didn’t listen to Trane when he was alive…” But weak of faith that we humans are, we gravitate not only to the familiar, but to where we find the proverbial “safety in numbers”. And Trane… well he was alone, crying his music through his horn like a struggler in the desert. So what was the point of all this to me? I was – and am – thinking of the second chance we got through the music of Trane’s wife, who performed first as Alice Coltrane and then – after Trane went away and she sought solace in a name she took when she was completely at peace: Turiyasangitānanda.
In November 1970, a mere three years after her husband passed, Alice Coltrane – she still went by that name – got together with Pharoah Sanders, Vishnu Wood and Tulsi, Charlie Haden and Cecil McBee, Rashied Ali and Majid Shabazz at the Coltrane Studio in Dix Hills, New York. There with some personnel rotating Mrs Coltrane recorded an album that was to provide a glimpse into the direction in which she revealed the musical direction she was to pursue for the rest of her earthly life. The recording included “Journey in Satchidānanda”, a song which became her anthem of sorts. The other pieces were “Shiva-Loka”, “Stopover Bombay”, “Isis and Osiris” and another epic bluesy revelation: “Something About John Coltrane”. Vishnu Wood – who Mrs Coltrane credits with introducing her to Swami Satchidānanda – plays the lonesome, ululating oud; a perfect foil to Mrs Coltrane’s interstellar harp on “Isis and Osiris”.
These were some of the most hypnotic and wildly beautiful and contemplative supplications we had [perhaps] heard since Trane’s late work. At the risk of speaking a great apostasy, perhaps some [myself included] heard something wilder and certainly more beautiful than [for example] Interstellar Space. There was something equally urgent [as Interstellar Space, yet more visionary, than that music. In fairness Mrs Coltrane was treading ground familiar to the sagacious for more than five thousand years; since the Natyashastra to be exact.
“Journey to Satchitānanda” pulsates as it penetrates the mind taking listeners – initiates, neophytes and learned acolytes alike – to a rarefied realm with the celestial trill of Mrs Coltrane’s harp and its wildly soaring and diving arpeggios, which were often repeated on the piano on “Stopover Bombay”; the mighty rumble of Rashied Ali’s drums, the slash and sizzle of his cymbals; the implacable drone of the Tulsi’s tamboura. Meanwhile, Pharaoh Sanders’ gloriously floating yowls – playing the “Son” in Albert Ayler’s Holy Trinity – as he channels Trane’s message through his [Sanders’] own singular voice. The elemental wolf-howl of his soprano saxophone and the tintinnabulations of bells and the kanjira follow Mrs Coltrane to “Satchidānanda”. There is a glimmer about the music, something that comes at you in waves like an incessant chant rising… rising higher and higher… beguiling and soothing as the breath of an invisible God.